Japan. What can be said about the land of the rising sun that hasn't already been said? It’s modern, ancient, weird, beautiful, eccentric and eclectic. It is a land of contradiction and dichotomy, and these doubles are evident in the cinema. They have some of the most beautiful films ever made, but also some of the most disturbing and disgusting movies as well. Generally, these two sides of Japanese cinema never meet, however when they do the results can be some of the strangest and most beautiful products you are fortunate enough to see. Enter Harmonium, written and directed by Kôji Fukada. Will the fifth feature by the Japanese filmmaker combine what should be total opposites into something that can be considered entertaining.
Harmonium, or to give the film its Japanese title, Fuchi ni Tatsu, focusses on the story of a married couple, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), as well as their young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). Their life is rather dull until someone from Toshio’s past, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up outside his mechanic shop and asks for a job. It turns out that Yasaka has just been released from prison, and the fact that Toshio offers him work and accommodation without consulting the family puts strains on his relationships, which are further tested through the strange and disturbing behaviour of their house guest. The story is fantastic, well-paced and executed. Despite a time skip the film still feels whole and cohesive. Fukada’s previous film, Hospitality, shares some of the similar story elements. Both deal with an unexpected house guest and their effects on the family, however, while Hospitality took a more whimsical approach, Harmonium is darker, stranger and more dangerous.
This is predominantly a character drama, and thus the performances need to be top notch, and thankfully each actor brings their A-game. Tadanobu’s Yasaka is suitably subtle, with the audience unaware of his true intentions until it is revealed slowly over the course of the film. He is unnerving, unsettling and entirely unearthly, like a ghost that haunts the family for the sins of the father and, though he is not onscreen for the majority of the film, his presence is still felt and his performance still sticks in the mind. However, the standouts have to be Kanji Furutashi and Mariko Tsutsui, as husband and wife Toshio and Akié. Though each character reacts to the tragedy that occurs at the film’s halfway point in different ways, both are nonetheless believable. Akié’s descent into obsessive-compulsive cleanliness could have seemed overwrought in less skilled hands, but here Tsutsui brings a weight and a grounded inner turmoil that is entirely believable. Similarly, Toshio's grief is barely contained through a veneer of responsibility and determination and when the walls finally crumble, and he releases that emotion, it is as though a dam has burst and waves of his sadness and rage wash over like powerful waves. Everyone in the film is a tour de force.
The cinematography is similarly excellent. The use of long takes and cold framing visually represent the rut that Akié and Toshio find themselves in. The use of colour also subtly associates certain colours with certain feelings, for example red becomes an almost oppressive symbol for danger that slowly creeps its way into the film and puts the audience on edge whenever it can be seen. It is truly refreshing that a director like Fukada and his cinematographer Kenichi Negishi are able to use all that in the film to tell such a subtle and disturbing story. Harmonium explores the construction of the Japanese family and finds the fatal traps that are to be found within it. The film cleverly introduces western audiences to the Japanese notion of responsibility and how confining and dangerous it can be. It is a bizarre film filled with danger and thought provoking ideas, a must see film from a director that needs more recognition.
This film is brought to use by the great people at Eureka! Masters of Cinema. Like Criterion, they are purveyors of high quality films on high quality discs and their release of Harmonium is no exception. Presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and with the added option of two different audio tracks at 5.1 DTS HD audio and a 2.0 Stereo track. With regard to the clarity of sound and vision Eureka! have done incredibly well, with no digital audio or video errors. I will say however that this film does look a little different on Blu-ray than it does on the big screen. I realise I am stating the somewhat obvious here, however, the screen size is not necessarily the issue. I am just saying that in its crisp visual quality the film took on a slightly more televisual-like aesthetic at times, with flatter lighting and colouring. However, these are minor issues which do little to do ruin what is a stellar film presented in fantastic quality.
The menus are also wonderfully presented, easy to navigate and the subtitles that are clear to read.
Harmonium comes packaged with three extras, well two really, I have said on other Blu-ray reviews that I consider the trailer to be a non-extra as it comes on other discs almost as standard. The other two are interviews with the film’s director Kôji Fukada and lead actor Kanji Furutachi. Both these interviews are in-depth and extensive with both talking about the production of Harmonium as well as their wider careers. These interviews go someway to exploring the themes of the film as well as how they approached the task of making it. It was certainly informative seeing the director talk about his method in creating this twisted tale. I will say, however, that I did find these talking head single-camera interviews a little dull, despite the insights that both subjects give. I suppose that stems from a culture of cutaways and dynamic documentaries.
Harmonium as a film is a unique experience. It is a tense, thought provoking family drama/thriller and at times an upsettingly funny comedy. I highly recommend that you seek out Harmonium as soon as you can, Kôji Fukada is a director that needs to be watched in the future, because I am sure his other films are going to be as great and as unnerving as this one, even if the extras on the disc did leave it a little lacking.